ATLANTA — Karen Handel, the former Susan G. Komen for the Cure executive at the center of last year’s public clash with Planned Parenthood, said Friday that she will run for an open U.S. Senate seat in Georgia.
The Republican field for the seat held by U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who is retiring next year, was already crowded. Three of Georgia’s GOP congressmen – Paul Broun of Athens, Phil Gingrey of Marietta and Jack Kingston of Savannah – have announced plans to run.
Handel, 51, sought to distinguish herself from the rest of the field by calling herself “a fresh voice.”
“What we need is less Washington in Washington,” she said. “Someone who is going to be tough and not kick the can down the road.”
The former Georgia secretary of state is expected to tap quickly into her statewide network of supporters and start raising money to compete with the sizeable campaign cash already secured by Kingston and Gingrey.
Handel has been traveling the country in recent months, talking with anti-abortion groups about her time with Komen and the public outcry over the breast cancer charity’s decision to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood.
Komen quickly reversed course amid intense public criticism and Handel resigned, earning the support of conservatives. She wrote a book about her experiences called Planned Bullyhood, in which she criticized both sides for the way they handled the situation.
Handel wrote that Komen had long been considering whether to end Planned Parenthood funding for breast-cancer education and screening in order to get out of the abortion debate. When Handel joined the organization as vice president of public policy in 2011, she was tasked with finding ways to make the split, she wrote.
“It was not our issue. It had become a major distraction, sucking up manpower and putting a damper on fundraising,” wrote Handel, who had opposed abortion during her campaigns in Georgia.
The 2010 governor’s race was bruising as Handel criticized what she labeled “a good old boys club” at the state Capitol, calling for ethics reform with a speech titled “sex, lies and lobbyists” that distanced her from party leaders. While she received the most votes in the primary, it was not enough to avoid a runoff with Nathan Deal, who eventually won the general election.
During the race, she did not gain the support of the Georgia Right to Life group. Handel opposes abortion, but she has said she supports exceptions for rape and incest. She also disagreed with the group’s president over the issue of in-vitro fertilization. Handel has spoken publicly about her struggle to have children and wrote in her book that she and her husband had considered in-vitro but decided against it on the advice of their physician.
Melanie Crozier, who directs Georgia Right to Life’s political action committee, made clear Friday that Handel hasn’t settled the issue.
“GRTL would welcome the opportunity to consider endorsing Mrs. Handel if she commits to protecting all innocent human life at every stage of development,” Crozier said in a statement.
It appears Handel will not have the benefit of support from former Gov. Sonny Perdue, a mentor of hers over the years. Handel briefly served as Perdue’s deputy chief of staff before leaving the administration to run for chairman of the Fulton County Commission, a race she won. Perdue has announced support for his cousin, David Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General and Reebok and a Republican who is exploring a bid for the Senate race.
Kelly Loeffler, an executive with the Atlanta-based company that recently bought the New York Stock Exchange and a co-owner of Atlanta’s professional women’s basketball team, has also been mentioned as a possible Republican candidate.
Democrats are still looking for a candidate, but they celebrated Handel’s entry into the race.
“The divisive Republican primary appears to get more volatile by the day and is certain to produce a nominee that is too extreme for mainstream Georgians,” said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow of Augusta has ruled out a bid. Democrats’ focus has now shifted to Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn and CEO of the nonprofit volunteer organization Points of Light. Nunn is expected to announce her decision in the coming weeks.